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Unemployment woes continue as nearly 66,000 jobless claims filed in Maryland last week

Michael Foster has about $1,000 in his checking account, $350 in his savings, a daughter in college, two elderly parents, no job and what he said are sporadic unemployment benefits to make ends meet.

The 47-year-old former sous chef from Crofton is still trying to navigate the state’s new online unemployment portal and said he hasn’t received benefits in weeks despite initially receiving some payments in March and early April. He was laid off in March after Gov. Larry Hogan issued orders requiring “nonessential” businesses to close.

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“I’ve been dipping into my savings just for car payments and mortgage [payments],” Foster said.

Nearly 66,000 Marylanders filed jobless claims last week, bringing the number who have filed claims for unemployment benefits since the coronavirus arrived in Maryland in mid-March to more than 556,000. A number of residents, however, say they haven’t received their proper payments, despite Hogan’s claim last week that the portal handling the claims “has been completely fixed for at least 10 days.

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The Maryland Department of Labor said Tuesday the state had paid benefits to more than 327,000 workers, with 90% of those workers receiving payments within three weeks.

A spokesman for the Department of Labor did not respond to calls for comment Thursday.

The figures for last week’s claims for unemployment insurance and Pandemic Unemployment Assistance are significantly than the prior week. The state saw a surge in applications the week ending May 2, as nearly 110,000 Marylanders filed for unemployment assistance, spurred by the state opening up the process to independent contractors and gig workers in late April.

But the numbers filing claims are remain far above the normal volume of a few thousand a week.

While state officials say they expected and planned for a surge of unemployment claims brought on by the pandemic, some residents say the state is still unresponsive in handling applications.

Hundreds of residents from across Maryland voiced their frustrations with the state’s unemployment insurance system during a state Senate hearing Tuesday. Unemployed workers described a broken system that has left some without payments for as many as two months as they’re on the phone for hours waiting for help.

Foster, who spoke Thursday with The Baltimore Sun, said he initially received unemployment benefits after he filed a claim in March, before the state moved all claims over to the online BEACON portal.

He said that, after he registered through the portal the Sunday after it was launched in late April, he received a payment during its first week, but that he has not received follow up benefits since and has struggled to get answers as to why.

He received an email from the department in early May saying some applicants may have “mistakenly inactivated” their claims through the new weekly claim certification questions on the website. He said he has since filed a claim successfully, but it hasn’t led to weekly payments.

Foster said he now gets up early in the morning to start calling the unemployment office in hope of getting some assistance, but he has yet to get through to a human. He said he called hundreds, if not thousands of times, Wednesday, without getting through to a human representative.

“My biggest frustration, I think ... is there’s no indication of what they’re doing to rectify the problem,” Foster said.

Denise Clow, a 50-year-old who lives in Frederick County and had been receiving $227 a week in unemployment benefits for months prior to the coronavirus pandemic, said she hasn’t received any payments since shifting over to pandemic-specific assistance last month.

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Clow said her initial benefits ran out on March 27 and that the state sent her $600 after she filed for unemployment assistance through the state’s emergency aid programs, but she hasn’t seen any payments since.

She said, when the online BEACON One-Stop portal launched, the questions did not align properly with the “Yes” or “No” options and did not allow users to change their answers, leading to issues with initial registration.

Clow also spends her days trying to get through to officials at the unemployment office, she said.

“And now, all I pretty much get are busy signals,” Clow said.

On Wednesday, Maryland’s labor secretary said the state has added workers to the unemployment office and expanded hours to help tackle the increased number of claims. She added that the state is limited by having just 200 phone lines, which they’re working to expand.

Lawmakers also are concerned that a potential second wave of coronavirus infections could put additional stress on the system if restrictions on businesses are reinstated to help stop the spread of the disease.

The state launched the online portal April 24 to streamline unemployment claims, only for it to crash that day. It was restored the next day and, by Sunday morning, 99,049 accounts had been activated.

Nationally, nearly 3 million laid-off workers applied for U.S. unemployment benefits last week as the viral outbreak led more companies to slash jobs even though most states have begun to let some businesses reopen under certain restrictions.

Roughly 36 million people have now filed for jobless aid in the two months since the coronavirus first forced millions of businesses to close their doors and shrink their workforces, the Labor Department said Thursday.

Still, the number of first-time applications nationwide has declined for six straight weeks, suggesting that a dwindling number of companies are reducing their payrolls.

By historical standards, though, the latest tally shows that the number of weekly jobless claims remains enormous, reflecting an economy that is sinking into a severe downturn. Last week’s pace of new applications for aid is still four times the record high that prevailed before the coronavirus struck hard in March.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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